COVID-19 Pandemic: One Year After

Yes, it has been a year since the COVID-19 pandemic first made its presence felt in the Philippines, and it is far from over. It is now up to all of us Filipinos if we want to win over COVID-19, and survive together as one country and one people. The only option available to us right now is working together for us to be able to win over COVID-19, and survive together as one country and one people. The situation we are facing is difficult but it is not an impossible challenge to overcome.

One year has passed since the first set of COVID-19 community quarantine classifications were imposed in the Philippines. On March of last year, as the first set of COVID-19 cases was detected, the then newly-formed Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-CID or simply IATF), recommended to place the whole of Metro Manila under Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ), the highest community quarantine classification that limits mobility of people, and operation of businesses and modes of transport, with residents ordered to stay at home with only one assigned member of the family going out to buy essential goods while only essential businesses such as banks, pharmacies and supermarkets and public markets were allowed to operate. The said recommendation was approved by President Rodrigo Duterte, who made the announcement of live national television a few days before the metropolis was placed under ECQ.

Several days later, the ECQ declaration was expanded to the rest of Luzon, as cases of COVID-19 were detected in some Luzon provinces, perhaps a result of the sudden influx of people who left Metro Manila in anticipation of the imposition of the lockdown. Areas in the Visayas and Mindanao eventually followed suit, imposing their own community quarantine classifications based on the number of cases in the respective localities and the ability of their health care system to deal with the increase in the number of potential COVID-19 patients.

During the early days of the nationwide ECQ, the national health care system felt the pressure from the sudden deluge of COVID-19 patients. This resulted to hospitals, especially those in Metro Manila, reaching full capacity. To make matters worse, some doctors, nurses and other health care workers, as well as policemen, social workers and other front-liners fell ill to COVID-19, with a number of them dying from the disease.

As communities were locked down and most Filipinos were either unable to report for work or lost their jobs because of ECQ, the government, in particular the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) and the local government units (LGUs), especially the barangays, extended various forms of assistance. Cash assistance amounting to P5,000 through the Social Amelioration Program (SAP), better known among Tagalog speakers as "ayuda," was given to qualified individuals by the DSWD and local social and welfare development offices throughout the country, although the initial and succeeding roll out was not perfect due to delays ranging from several days to several months and allegations of graft and corruption at the local level. Material assistance was also given out by the DSWD and LGUs, ranging from bags containing grocery items, toiletries, face masks and alcohol to bags and sacks of rice to dressed chicken.

One year has indeed passed but was there any significant change since the first time the community quarantine classifications were imposed?

In terms of the ability of the Philippine health care system to respond to COVID-19 cases, there seems to be significant improvement from last year. Hospitals and health care workers are now able to deal with probable, suspected and confirmed COVID-19 patients, although a significant number of doctors, nurses and other workers in the health care sector still fall ill to the disease. The national government and local government units assigned dedicated facilities to be utilized as isolation centers for COVID-19 patients with mild symptoms or those who are asymptomatic. It is fortunate that the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines coming from Chinese firm Sinovac that were donated to the Philippines by the Chinese government and those from British-Swedish firm AstraZeneca that were donated through World Health Organization's (WHO) COVAX facility has finally started, giving doctors, nurses and other health care workers and other Filipino front-liners added protection from the disease, and some hope that the pandemic may soon come to an end.

Unfortunately, the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have proved to be more damaging than the actual disease itself. As a result of the imposition of community quarantine classifications, many businesses, especially micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs), were forced to shut down permanently due to heavy losses and the inability to pay rental income, utility bills and business tax. The closure of the businesses resulted to a significant increase in the number of unemployed Filipinos, reaching a 16-year high of four million as of January 2021, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA).

The imposition of varying levels of community quarantine classifications throughout the Philippines made the transport of agricultural commodities and other goods to Metro Manila and other areas quite a challenge. The challenges in terms of logistics, as well as the pork supply gap created by African Swine Fever (ASF), which affected a significant number of hog farms, especially backyard growers, in Luzon, and artificial shortages caused by those who hoard the supply of key commodities, caused an increase in the wholesale and retail prices. This was reflected in the February 2021 inflation rate of 4.7 percent, which was the highest since January 2019.

The severe economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on millions of Filipinos, as well as the need for the Philippine economy to recover and prepare for the post-COVID-19 future, are the driving force behind those who are pushing for economic reforms, especially the removal or easing of foreign ownership of equity restrictions on several business sectors. The House of Representatives is now deliberating on proposed economic reforms, although debates and a lot of fine tuning are still needed to make the measures in line with the interests of the country and the current and future economic needs of Filipinos. On the other hand, the Senate seems to be hell bent on keeping the economic status quo, which is why it is being perceived by some as an obstructionist entity when it comes to the pursuit of long overdue political and economic reforms.

As of March 2021, the Department of Health (DOH) has seen a sudden increase in the number of COVID-19 cases, especially in Metro Manila, which is still under the mid-range General Community Quarantine (GCQ) classification, and even in some areas that are under the lowest Modified General community Quarantine (MGCQ) classification, with concerns that new cases per day may reach between 6,000 to 10,000 if no significant course of action will be taken. The discovery of new variants of the COVID-19-causing virus, some of which were introduced into the country, such as the United Kingdom (UK) variant, Brazilian variant and South African variant, possibly by foreigners and returning Filipinos from overseas, while others were homegrown mutations, added to the growing concerns. With the national government and local government units intensifying contract tracing and other measures to control the spread of the disease, it seems that the main culprit behind the recent increase in the number of COVID-19 cases is the number of Filipinos who take the basic health and safety protocols for granted.

One year has passed and still the bad habits of Filipinos have not changed. Many still do not take basic health and safety protocols, such as the wearing of face mask and face shield, practicing social distancing, and disinfecting the hands either by washing them with soap and water or putting alcohol or alcohol-based sanitizer on them, seriously. Some businesses and modes of public transport that were allowed to operate also do not follow basic health and safety protocols by allowing more people than what was actually prescribed by law and not having proper ventilation as mandated by law. To make matters worse, it seems that authorities on the national and local level are hesitating in enforcing the law out of concerns related to "human rights" and "individual freedoms" despite the fact that the latter are already being counterproductive to the effort to combat the spread of the COVID-19.

Yes, it has been a year since the COVID-19 pandemic first made its presence felt in the Philippines, and it is far from over. It is now up to all of us Filipinos if we want to win over COVID-19, and survive together as one country and one people. The only option available to us right now is working together for us to be able to win over COVID-19, and survive together as one country and one people. The situation we are facing is difficult but it is not an impossible challenge to overcome.

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About the Author
Benedict is an agricultural economist, academician and writer. He has gained experience and expertise in various fields of economics, business, political science and public relations after through professional ventures in the academe, and in the public and private sectors. He has authored or co-authored key publications on topics ranging from agriculture and food security to global affairs and politics.
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